BJP Uses A Sri Lankan Island To Ingratiate Itself With The Tamils – Analysis


Hoping to get the votes of the people of Tamil Nadu in the forthcoming parliamentary elections, India’s PM has questioned previous Congress governments’ decision to “cede” Kachchativu island to Sri Lanka in 1974.    

India’s Prime Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supremo Narendra Modi is using the issue connected with the Sri Lankan island of Kachchativu to ingratiate himself with the Tamils of Tamil Nadu, a South Indian State which is to have elections for the Indian parliament later in April.

The Indian PM questioned previous Congress governments’ decision to “cede” Kachchativu island to Sri Lanka in 1974.   

Kachchativu is a tiny island in the Palk Strait, located ten miles northeast of Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu and 10 miles from Talaiamannar in Sri Lanka.

Sovereignty over the island had been disputed since 1921. Finally, in 1974, India decided to agree to Sri Lanka’s claim to the island in the interest of good neighbourly relations.

But the political parties in Tamil Nadu had been opposed to the deal.

The issue of the Kachchativu is usually taken up by the Davidian political parties in Tamil Nadu such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the All India Anna DMK (AIADMK) for whom the fishing community is a major vote bank.

Tamil Nadu fishermen, who have been fishing in this area for centuries, tend to intrude into Sri Lankan waters beyond Kachchativu and fish near the north Sri Lankan coastline. They get arrested by the Sri Lankan navy. A hue and cry is raised by the political parties in Tamil Nadu. The government of India then intervenes diplomatically. And then the fishermen are released. 

This cycle is repeated year after year with no end in sight.

As an offshoot of this, Tamil Nadu politicians have been routinely demanding that Kachchativu be “taken back” from Sri Lanka as it had been “thoughtlessly” ceded by India to Sri Lanka by an agreement signed in 1974. Both the AIADMK (in 2008) and the DMK (in 2013) had approached the Supreme Court on this, only to be told that the current status of the island is a done deal that could not be reversed. 

Modi’s Charge Against Congress

But in an unusual, indeed unsettling development on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is also the Supremo of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), very strongly took up the Kachchativu issue, accusing the opposition Congress party of surrendering Kachchativu to Sri Lanka when it was in power in New Delhi in 1974. 

Referring to an official report, secured through the Right to Information Act, Modi said that it was the Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who had handed over Katchathivu to Sri Lanka.

It was “eye-opening and startling,” he said and accused India’s grand old opposition party of weakening the country’s integrity. He dubbed the decision on Kachchativu as “callous” and added that the Congress government’s decision had angered every Indian.

“We can’t ever trust Congress. Weakening India’s unity, integrity, and interests has been Congress’ way of working for 75 years and counting,” Modi wrote on X.

The Tamil Maanila Congress (Moopanar) president G.K. Vasan, who is an ally of the BJP, alleged that the Katchatheevu island was ceded with the approval of the DMK, which was in Tamil Nadu at that time. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman put out a video of Jayalalithaa’s making the same charge against the DMK. 

Congress Retorts

Taking the cudgels on behalf of the Congress, its President, Mallikarjun Kharge, pointed out that the Modi government’s own Attorney General, Mukul Rohtagi, had told the Supreme Court in 2014 that Kachchativu went to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974 and asked how it can be taken back today. “If you want Katchatheevu back, you will have to go to war to get it back,” Rohatgi said.

Kharge went on to ask Modi: “Did your government take any steps to resolve this issue and take back Kachchativu?” Another Congressman, Sandeep Dikshit, described Modi’s charge as a ploy to win the coming parliamentary elections in Tamil Nadu. 

Election Ploy  

Come elections, political parties do rake up emotive issues to gain a decisive advantage over their rivals. Modi’s charge was only an election ploy. He did not say that his government will retrieve Kachchativu from Sri Lanka. He only blamed the Congress for giving it away back in 1974. There was no hint of renegotiating the 1974 Indo-Lanka maritime border pact.  

Be that as it may, the common belief in India is that the Indian government had “ceded” Kachchativu to Sri Lanka while in Sri Lanka the common belief is that the island was indisputably Sri Lankan. 

Though both the Indian and Sri Lankan sides had argued their case with historical facts and over numerous meetings since 1921, the final decision in 1974 was a political one taken by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and her Sri Lankan counterpart, Sirima Bandaranaike in the interest of good neighbourly relations. 

But not all aspects of the dispute were solved, which is why it still exists. According to the Tamil Nadu politicians and fishermen, a 1976 agreement allowed Indian fishermen to fish around Kachchativu as they had done this from time immemorial. 

Fishing Rights

But according to the Sri Lankans, the 1976 pact allowed Indian fishermen only innocent passage across Kachchativu, not fishing.

According to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry: “Paragraph 1 of the Exchange of Letters very clearly rules out any fishing rights for the fishermen of the two States in the waters of the other State. It reads as follows: Fishing vessels and fishermen of India shall not engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of Sri Lanka nor shall the fishing vessels and fishermen of Sri Lanka engage in fishing in the historic waters, the territorial sea and the EEZ of India, without the express permission of Sri Lanka or India, as the case may be.” 

And the Indian government had told the Supreme Court that the term “traditional rights is not to be understood to cover fishing rights around the island to Indian fishermen.”

Curbing Intrusions

With fish stocks diminishing on the Indian side due to over-fishing, Indian fishermen have been routinely coming close to the Sri Lankan mainland to fish and that too with trawlers. Sri Lankan fishermen naturally are disturbed by this and the Lankan navy has been arresting the intruders. But any tension arising from this is defused when India intervenes diplomatically and gets the arrested fishermen released. 

Various suggestions have been made to solve the problem, but none of them has been implemented. Among the suggestions were: allowing fishing without trawlers; fixing seasons for fishing; incentivising deep sea fishing; and making the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar a joint development zone for the benefit of both countries. 

Working groups from the two countries regularly meet but the issues remain. However, they are not allowed to blow up as both countries exercise restraint in the interest of the broader relationship.

Retrieving Kachchativu

Making a drastic suggestion to end the problem, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J.Jayalalithaa demanded that Kachchativu be retrieved from Sri Lanka. But the Central government ignored the call. In 2008 she filed a case in the Supreme Court. And DMK leader M.Karunanidhi filed another in 2013. 

The Union government told the court in 2008 that the question of the retrieval of Katchatheevu from Sri Lanka did not arise because no territory belonging to India was ceded to Sri Lanka. Kachchativu was a disputed territory over which India had given up its claim in 1974.

Jayalalitha had claimed that Kachchativu was historically a part of Ramnad Raja’s estate. But the Government of India’s case was that these land rights did not give “sovereignty” over the island.  

The Indian government told the Supreme Court: “Both countries examined the entire question from all angles and took into account historical evidence and legal aspects. This position was reiterated in the 1976 agreement. No territory belonging to India was ceded nor sovereignty relinquished since the area in question was in dispute and had never been demarcated.” 

The contention of Jayalalithaa that Kachchativu was ceded to Sri Lanka “was not correct and contrary to official records,” the government said.

Sri Lanka’s Case 

A well-researched memorandum on Kachchativu was submitted in June 1966 by C. S. Navaratnam of Jaffna, an acclaimed authority on the subject. Much of his research contributed to the final dossier on Sri Lanka’s claim. 

Sri Lanka’s then Legal Advisor, M.C.Walter Pinto, had examined records at the Public Office in London and also at the India Office there, and was also able to unearth information from some Dutch-era documents, that strengthened Sri Lanka’s case.

(A version of this story was published in Daily News Colombo on April 2, 2024)

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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